With a headstrong heroine swinging across the boundary between land and sea, Metta Theatre prove how brilliantly underwater myths and circus acts can combine in this fresh adaptation of The Little Mermaid. Original twists and conflicts within the plot convincingly drag the production out from the shadow cast by Hans Christian Andersen’s original and Disney’s 1989 offering (a highly influential film if several childhood living room recitals with a towel wrapped round my legs are anything to go by), but a need to show the company’s ambition sometimes comes at a price, as with the final act’s breakneck pacing.
Poppy Burton-Morgan has opened up the original text’s themes of love and longing to encompass sibling relationships and a mirrored narrative in Little (Rosie Rowlands, alternating with Tilly Lee-Kronick) and her Prince (Matt Knight). Little’s desire to venture further is matched in her adventurous but unconventional Prince, the two wistfully looking out to sea/shore as their voices dance around ‘I’m Drawn to the Other’. The lyrics feel repetitive but it’s that delicious dreamy quality which gives the sequence a rose-tinted glow, like stumbling over poetry written as a lovelorn teen. For such a treasured voice, Rowlands’ own vocals occasionally falter on solos – possibly falling down under the weight of matching a ballad like ‘Part of Your World’. Matt Devereaux’ score doesn’t swell to any strong crescendos but it does mark the divide between land and sea well. On shore is staccato, plucked sounds, but diving underwater reveals genuine, lively music. Everything in the sea carries a melody: Little’s seahorse friend speaks through saxophone notes.
The sea is almost too irresistible to leave, making the adapted ending all the more magical when Little’s prince is given an opportunity to leave his life for hers. Throughout the show our shore-crossed lovers are reined in by gender roles: women should be meek, men strong. Little’s surface visit is meant to be a passive, silent affair: instead she rescues a drowning man, hauling him to safety in a magnificent trapeze duet. Rowland’s frame holds up Knight’s loose limbs, foreshadowing his later induction to the water. It’s slapstick with a romantic overtone, eliciting giggles from the children in the audience and sighs from the older theatre-goers.
Metta Theatre use their circus prowess to combine acrobatic flair with the transformative sequences within the show. Little emerges into the human world through hoops, spells are conjured within a cyr by the sea witch (Roo Jenkyn-Jones). The liminal is a fearful place, but the company-devised choreography shows an instinctive power over these obstacles. This is a world where fantastic feats happen before our eyes: if performers can fly through the air, a fin can be cleft into legs. Anything is possible, a powerful feeling of achievement hangs in the air. Contrast this with Little’s frustrated chandelier display: swinging helplessly above the dancers, Little loses her agency and elegance.
Whilst on land opportunities are lost, the sea offers a clean slate: escapism for the prince, a safe return for Little, a family unit for Eldest, a fresh start for their mother. Revealing the mermaids’ mother is a twist only dampened by unnecessary signposting. The fairytale nature of the piece means we can enjoy estranged family reunions without the structural need for foreshadowing. It rushes the reconciliation, and Little’s choice to literally embrace the years spanning their mother’s absence is an act of kindness reminiscent of Disney’s latest offerings. It’s a far cry from the fairytale’s heritage, a further example of how Metta champion rather than ridicule their teen hero. It’s fantastic to see that children are being taught that tolerance and love, not impaling somebody with a wrecked mast, is the answer after all.
Metta Theatre’s Little Mermaid is touring the UK until 12 August 2018. Click here for more details.